Why Steel?

 

Ever since I was a kid I wondered why most tools were made of some type of steel. A quick search online will show you I am not alone. It is a common and legitimate question. So why are most hand held tools (including weapons) made out of some type of iron based alloy otherwise known as steel? The answer is multifaceted but there is one reason in particular that stands out to this author.

 

Cost. Iron is cheaper than any of other the other base metals than could be considered for cutting and pounding. Seriously, go to a scrap yard. See how much you get for your steel scrap and then see how much you get per weight for your aluminum cans . . . and that is aluminum. Copper, titanium, magnesium, and just about every other metal up for consideration is more costly that aluminum or steel.

Workability. It took me until I got older to truly appreciate this one. Iron is easier than most metals/alloys to work with. The knowledge and tooling to do so is readily available (partly because of the above reason).  It is true that a few other metals are as easy, or even easier, to work with but most of those are not hard enough or strong enough for most applications.

 

Versatility. Steel is the most versatile alloy man currently uses. Depending on the alloying elements and the treating processes used, the characteristics of the steel produced vary greatly. The main element of iron remains the same but the changes to it make all the difference.
The above would be enough to explain why steel is so prevalent. Cost is king for just about everything and even if steel was not ideal, it would still be the go to alloy for the price. But there is another huge reason why steel is so prevalent for most things hand held:

Optimum Density

Iron is the Goldilocks element weight and volume wise. When you here that aluminum, titanium, or some other alloy/metal is stronger (usually tensile strength) it is so by weight. However, you can pack a lot more steel into a tiny space than you can most alloys for consideration.

There are a few exceptions. Molybdenum and Tungsten are “heavier” by volume. However, they are too dense/heavy and are much more costly.

Various brass and bronze alloys come fairly close to steel in terms of density (slightly heavier). Which is why bronze and brass are decent candidates for certain jobs. There was a Bronze Age. But even the hardest (heated treated) bronzes only compare to mild steels. And while not as expensive as titanium or tungsten, copper is still far more expensive than iron.

Titanium is often put forth in terms of knife and sword making. Just like bronze and even glass – it has it merits. It is non-magnetic, has excellent corrosion resistance, has an excellent strength to weight ratio, and its density is much closer to optimum (still light) for hand held objects. Here is an article that helped me on my metallurgic journey:

http://archive.li/ODrir

It does a good job explaining why titanium (and hence other materials) is usually not the right pick for a blade. The points made therein carry over to other hand held weapons and tools.

Simply put the answer is certain materials for certain jobs. For really small parts, tungsten might work (maybe even a part of a tool – say a spike). For a really big contraption, like an airplane, steel is too “heavy” or rather too dense. It is why those steel framed cars of yesteryear got under ten miles to the gallon. It is why the dinosaurs had hollow bones and the largest mammals live in the sea. Physics matters.

TTAK readers are fairly astute so much of what I just wrote is old hat. Sometimes though it bares repeating especially for those who have heard and seen these points mentioned before but never connected the dots. Steel meets the requirements better than most materials and probably will for some time. And what discussion on steel would be complete without the first stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Cold Iron”:

Gold is for the mistress — silver for the maid —

Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.”

“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,

“But Iron — Cold Iron — is master of them all.”

comments

  1. I have forged blades from Silicon Bronze, work hardening the edge, they got quite sharp, and even Titanium, hardly move at even a yellow heat, but made a nice light, tough, blade, quite sharp. But neither of these blades had much edge holding. Carbon remains the chief element that adds “wear resistance” to a steel, even in stainless steels.

  2. Chase M. says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I find that a lot of people need a basic primer in metallurgy like this. It gives you a different perspective when you step back from the myopic focus on a specific knife or steel.

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